Dispatches | April 03, 2013

I was hiding in the backroom again, perusing the new shipment of Harlequin Romances and giggling with a co-worker over the titles. My favorites always involved secret babies born to millionaires, who for all their money could not be bothered with birth control, and had to either win the woman who bore them back into their lives, or hire women to take care of the children. Love and thrusting genitals inevitably occurred.

Am I the only one who finds the title and cover really inappropriate?

I hid in the back room often. There was a man who had been assaulting our store continuously over the past several months, leaving Maxims in the Children’s department with the centerfolds faced-out over copies of Pat the Bunny and the Hungry Caterpillar, and touching himself in various corners. We’d had two complaints about him – a young woman about my age, saying that he had thrown his semen on her, and then a young girl of about seven who said, her face pink and wet, that he had done the same. Because I was seventeen at the time but looked younger, my managers told me I should escape to the backroom whenever I felt nervous around the male patrons. One had even given me a two way radio to report suspicious behavior, but after a few half-hearted, static attempts I gave up and claimed I felt safer behind the locked door. I often simply did not want to stock the magazines, my primary job.

I always thought it would be a magical occupation, surrounded by books and people who liked to read. In my interview, even though they wanted someone older (you had to be eighteen to work the cash register) I promised I would work hard, because I wanted that twenty-percent discount miserably bad. In many ways it was magical, except for the customers.

There was the one man who came in asking for every book written by Proust. Every translation, every biography. I printed off scores of lists and watched him painstakingly examine each title, shrugging when he asked me my opinion. There was another man who asked that I save copies of Playboy for him (he always bought two, one to read and one to collect) and had to stand over him while he shook their plastic coatings and made sure there were no indentations or bends in the page. Another would wander in late at night, make a mess of the Astrology books, and tell me he could forecast my future. He has yet to be correct. There were always those who purchased The Da Vinci Code and were astounded that I had not read it, and then complained that it was, as of then, not out in paperback.

Hint: If you stop buying it, it’ll come out in paperback faster. 

 Once, a woman came in and asked me for a copy of Oprah’s latest book.

“Anna Karenina?” I said.

“I guess.”

I handed her a copy.

“No,” she told me. “Oprah wrote it.”

I handed her a copy with the Oprah Book Club sticker on the front. She beamed and bought it.

Then there were the athletes of a certain retail type, the kind who saved their sport up for weeks in their colon, and let it loose in a rage all over our public bathrooms. That’s when my favorite manager would rush into the backroom, her eyes wide, saying that we’d had another Olympian Shitter, and our only male manager (it was always the men’s bathroom) would sigh, grab his pack of cigarettes, and go outside to get the hose.

After the man who assaulted our store had been caught – he was not terribly clever, as he always wore the same necklace and hat, and my male manager stalked him through the store, notified the police and, if memory serves, ran outside after him and got his plate information – I wasn’t allowed to hide in the back as much, and so to avoid alphabetizing the perpetually messy categories (Religion, Hobbies, Transportation) I learned the value of extending out shelving the magazines as long as possible.

“Be careful,” the woman who trained me on the job had told me. “Once I reached in to clean the rows and found a used condom.”

It was a Books-A-Million, a Southern based store perpetually out of place in the Chicago Suburbs, where even though no one wanted a copy of Southern Living we always received hundreds. I was not allowed to send them back before their return date. This lead to creative shelving and, when I was frustrated enough by Paula Deen’s omnipresent face, I would sneak issues to where I knew the security cameras could not see me and rip the covers, the only acceptable reason for sending anything back early.


Books-A-Million loved its magazines. There was a row as long as the bookstore was wide filled with anything you could possibly be interested in: Twenty different versions of Model Plane Monthly, Beanie Baby Collector, Cooking, A whole unit devoted to guns (and the women who love to pose with them), Home Décor, Weddings, News and Propaganda were shelved together, and a small but large, considering, section of literary magazines. We never had copies of the Missouri Review, but we would get The Kenyon Review and Tin House, occasional copies of the Virginia Quarterly Review, and a handful of others. Sometimes I would play a game to see how often Joyce Carol Oates appeared in an issue, which eventually lead me to her collections and novellas. At night, when only one manager worked and they were often in the backroom doing “paperwork”, I would hide in a corner and read.

Teenage naiveté, perhaps, led me to believe that the product you sell will entice a certain kind of person into your establishment, but open doors, open seats and an open bathroom will lead anyone in, for better or for worse.

There was an old man with a pierced tongue who wore a green hat and a green jacket. He used to watch me shelve the magazines. He would turn his body to face mine as I passed him. He would stand with a slightly hunched back and pick up a magazine and glance down and look at me for hours three times a week. He would not leave until he muttered a hello, and even though I felt a particular ache in my spine to run, I was required to say hello back. I looked forward to his stumbling hello’s, knowing that after he would leave. When I aged to the register, he would wait until my line was open and purchase a Times magazine or a newspaper. I always smiled, because my smile was bought and paid for seven dollars an hour, and asked him if he wanted to buy a discount card. He never wanted to buy a discount card.

Still, once, I remember very clearly, a young father came in and asked me if I knew anything about fantasy. His son was into dragons and knights and magic, and he wanted something they could talk about. There was in him a yearning for connection with his own blood, something that, when broken with the abstract language we communicate in, can still be heard and understand when we share stories. I led him to the back wall and picked out my favorite books from my childhood: Dragonlance novels, the ones by Margaret Weis,  that I used to read in my bedroom to the light hours of the morning and yawn through the next day.

“Do they have happy endings?” he asked me.

“No,” I said. “Not really.”

He lifted the book to his face and half-smiled and said he would take it. A week later, he came in and bought several more. Three years after I stopped working there, after I had gone on to graduate school, the bookstore went South for the winter, and locked its doors.